The optimum way to see a documentary like Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' The Shock Doctrine is at a film festival, such as Sundance, where it made its North American premiere this week. Unfortunately, I saw it in my living room, which is probably how most people in the U.S. will see it thanks to the Video-On-Demand cable channel Sundance Selects, which began airing the film immediately following its Park City debut.
Not to say the festival experience makes it a better film, but at least attendees of the first Sundance screening had the benefit of a post-film discussion featuring the film's directors and Naomi Klein, the author of the book upon which it's based. It's safe to assume she explained her arguments regarding "disaster capitalism" and the faults of Laissez-faire economics better than the film does. And Winterbottom and Whitecross are possibly the only ones who can defend what they had intended with their ultimately disjointed translation of Klein's thesis.
I had only the internet to use as a reference and clarifier in the end. What I learned afterward about the film and Klein's involvement in its production is that she basically walked away due to its increasing departure from what she felt an adaption of her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism should look like. From what I understand, Klein's work is more investigative journalism, while Winterbottom and Whitecross have concentrated on a history lesson based upon her expose of Milton Friedman's methods of economic shock therapy.
At first the film appears to acknowledge and commit itself to this focus. It prefaces with a clip from one of Klein's speaking events, in which she addresses our need to look at the bigger picture of history and the story of human suffering so that we don't "lose our narrative" with each shocking event and disaster. What she means by this is not right away understood, but she comes across as eloquent and engaging, like a young, female Noam Chomsky. With this short introduction, I presumed I'd be better off reading her book or attending one of her lectures.
Yet as a fan of historical documentary, I took much longer to realize Winterbottom and Whitecross were not fair substitutes, even for the time being. The film takes us back to the 1950s, when Dr. Ewen Cameron was experimenting with shock therapy for the CIA and Friedman was developing his ideas about free-market capitalism. Seemingly unrelated and not adequately linked by the film, these men together inspired global events from the 1973 Chilean coup to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- basically any revolution or war in which a population is shocked to the point of being easily reengineered or manipulated is the effect of what Klein calls "The Shock Doctrine."
As an attempt to teach world history from the perspective of this doctrine, though, the film quickly has its faults. The military coups of Chile and Argentina are given way too much attention, and yet when Winterbottom and Whitecross switch their concentration to Thatcher-era Britain and the shock therapy of the Falklands War, they avoid mentioning what the conflict was for and did to the junta dictatorship of Argentina.
There is also too much focus on an anti-Friedman agenda that has little to do with the doctrine, such as when the film tells us that during the pro-Friedman Reagan years American CEOs went from earning 43% more than their employees to 400% more. By this time, though, we've got the gist of how this economic shock therapy works in the world, and so the next chapter, dealing with the fall of communism and the coup in Russia, seems like a repetitive blur.
Some of this feeling of repetition, as well as an impression of detachment, may be the result of the narration by regular Winterbottom actor Kieran O'Brien, who speaks in a wavering tone reminiscent of BBC News reports. I would love to think this was a deliberate wink at the way British newscasts are less about shock and fear than the American news media. O'Brien's constant exposition keeps us from really feeling anything about the tragedies we're viewing onscreen. The closest thing to a prompt of emotion is with the use of the somber score from Fargo, which I must hopefully believe was an intentionally ironic choice.
If Winterbottom and Whitecross meant for this blurred and detached overview of the history to relate to Klein's statement at the beginning of the film, I am even more disappointed in the direction the documentary goes in post-9/11, with its obvious and rushed footage, including a terribly shameless and redundant spotlight on the three detainees from the filmmakers' prior documentary, The Road to Guantanamo (which I cited as one of the best non-fiction films of the past decade).
In terms of bringing the history up to the present, The Shock Doctrine glides quickly over how disaster capitalism functions with natural shocks like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami (for a hint at how Sri Lanka may have been influenced by Friedman, watch the documentary From Dust). Enough that few home viewers would even to think of looking up what Klein is now writing about the earthquake in Haiti. Meanwhile, the weak address of the current economic crisis is blamed on the fact that this footage was added to the film after its initial premiere in Berlin a year ago.
The worst that comes out of the documentary's final moments is the sense that Winterbottom and Whitecross ultimately don't know what their film is supposed to be about. Suddenly we're treated to all this footage of Klein herself, in which she's on site in New Orleans or interviewing a former psychiatric patient of Dr. Cameron or talking with a victim of the Argentine junta. It's with this footage that The Shock Doctrine seems to want to be about Klein rather than an adaptation of her book. But there's really no reason for her to appear at all, save for maybe the occasional lecture footage that supplements the narration.
It's true that Klein was originally going to write and speak the narration herself, though it's better she didn't, because then it would seem too much her film (just as An Inconvenient Truth can seem too much Al Gore's and Food Inc. definitely seems too much Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser's). Besides, she already performed that function with a much better short film based on her book, which was co-directed by City of Men's Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas (watch it here). That 2007 documentary adequately summed up in a swift seven minutes what Winterbottom and Whitecross spread out over 80 minutes.
Honestly, both adaptations exist primarily as commercials for Klein's book and speaking events. Yet the first film positively advertises her work, while this new documentary only makes me want to seek it out so I can experience the real deal rather than Winterbottom and Whitecross' insufficient and misdirected take on the subject.
Transcription of part of the Q&A that followed the Sundance premiere of The Shock Doctrine is now viewable on the Sundance Film Festival webpage.